Books

KC author Tania Munz tells tale of man who learned the secret language of bees

Tania Munz spent a year in Munich doing research for her book “The Dancing Bees: Karl von Frisch and the Discovery of the Honeybee Language.” The book is about the work of Austrian-born scientist Karl von Frisch and his landmark discovery of how bees communicate when they dance.
Tania Munz spent a year in Munich doing research for her book “The Dancing Bees: Karl von Frisch and the Discovery of the Honeybee Language.” The book is about the work of Austrian-born scientist Karl von Frisch and his landmark discovery of how bees communicate when they dance. rsugg@kcstar.com

Tania Munz of Kansas City is the author of the new book “The Dancing Bees: Karl von Frisch and the Discovery of the Honeybee Language.”

Munz is vice president for research and scholarship at the Linda Hall Library, a privately endowed science library that is open to the public. Munz earned a doctorate in the history of science from Princeton University, was a research scholar at Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin and was a lecturer at Northwestern University.

Her book explores the life of Austrian-born scientist Karl von Frisch and his landmark discovery of how bees communicate through dance. Von Frisch was awarded a portion of the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1973.

Munz gives a talk at 7 p.m. Sept. 8 at the library. Admission is free, but e-tickets from lindahall.org are required. Books for signing may be ordered from Rainy Day Books at 913-384-3126.

Q: You have said your book is a biography of Karl von Frisch and also a biography of bees. What do you mean by that?

A: Over the course of the 20th century, bees changed in terms of how we see them. For centuries, we looked to the hive to learn lessons about how they manage their society. We would say, look at the queen, she is so wise and look at the workers, they work so hard. Depending on people’s politics, they would see a monarchy or a commune or a democracy.

Then in the 20th century, that changes, and bees are no longer seen as political animals but as the ultimate example for communicating animals.

Karl von Frisch was born in Vienna, started out as a physiologist interested in bees’ senses: Could they see color? Could they smell different substances? Could they hear? Could they taste? And while he was doing that work …

Q: May I stop you? What is the answer to those questions?

A: Yes. They can see colors; they can’t see red, so some colors look similar to them, but they see color. They see differently than we do; they can see polarization in the sky. They have an excellent sense of smell. Von Frisch believed bees could not hear, but later research showed they can, and they can taste.

Q: Amazing.

A: Another interesting thing is, bees’ receptors for space and smell are co-located on the antennae, so bees can smell space, in a way. And von Frish discovered all that.

So as he’s doing that work he begins observing these weird patterns that the bees fly inside the hive, which other people had observed back to Aristotle. And von Frisch thought back in the 1920s already that the dances related to communication about food sources.

But he was working on other stuff and World War II happened and the Nazi government came into power and started to purge people working in government that were perceived as not pure Aryan. Von Frisch had a maternal grandmother that was Jewish, and in 1941 he got a letter saying he was going to get kicked out of his government research job. My book describes his concerted effort to keep his job and the reason he was able to keep it was bees.

Q: Why?

A: There was a bee plague at the time, and bees were dying, and food had become critically important to the war effort. He changed the direction of his work to keep his job, from theoretical work to very practical work.

He began placing food sources at certain distances away and discovered that the straight line portion of the waggle dance indicates the direction of food, expressed by the angle of their body. And the speed of the dances indicates how close or far away a food is; the closer the food is the faster the bees dance.

Q: How did you do your research for the book?

A: The state library in Munich has lab notebooks, personal letters, business letters, reading notes — it’s an incredible collection. I spent a year in Munich reading basically his whole life from when he was practicing writing cursive as a little boy to shortly before he died. It was all in German, and German was my first language. I was born and raised in Switzerland until I was 14.

Q: What was it like having access to all his personal papers as well as scientific ones?

A: It was profoundly emotional. I will talk about this in my lecture: There’s the extreme between this beautiful scientific publication, very elegant and abstract and clean, and then you start reading and getting to know somebody personally.

Also, it’s very intimate, reading someone’s handwriting as opposed to typed pages.

And it gets really complicated when they start having to navigate these very weighty situations in their private life. And I included some of that, because I wanted the book to be readable and satisfying to trained historians as well as science buffs.

Cindy Hoedel: 816-234-4304, @cindyhoedel

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